It should be clear that Martha is not sinning by welcoming Jesus into her home and preparing a meal for Him. Indeed, it is a good and godly thing to do, and a loving way to serve Him, who is not only her Lord but also her neighbor (and, as we know from St. John, her friend). She is not sinning in her careful efforts and hard work, nor in her desire that everything be done well. In contrast to Simon the Pharisee, earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, Martha is eager to provide suitable and appropriate hospitality for her honored Guest.
And Jesus does not despise her efforts, nor reject her hospitality. He receives these gifts, as He has instructed His sent ones to receive and be content with the hospitality that is provided for them in the homes of peace to which they come. Our Lord, in human flesh, needs food and drink and so forth, and here He benefits from Martha’s service. As any host or hostess knows, someone has to do the work, or there won’t be anything for anyone to eat or drink: It don’t prepare itself!
But Martha does sin against her sister, and she misses the mark with her Lord, as well, by the division and distraction of her heart and mind. She is driven, not only by faith and love, but by anxiety and trouble; and, along with that, instead of being driven to find her peace and rest in Christ Jesus, she is drawn away from Him and His Word to her own work and worry. In striving to serve Him, and to please Him, she neglects His service and the very point and purpose of His visitation. Not only that, but in her efforts to serve the Lord, she fails to love her sister.
How often isn’t that the case for you, as well? That you strive to serve the Church, which is good and right in itself, but that you do so at the expense of your family? Or, that you go the extra mile for a friend or neighbor in need, which, again, is a good and godly thing to do, but that you fail to show consideration, gentleness, kindness, or patience with your own spouse, with your children, or with your siblings?
It’s not that you should neglect to serve the Church and your neighbors with your time, treasures, and talents. Indeed, you should do so! But so also serve your closest neighbors, that is, your own family, who in most cases are also members of the household and family of God.
Well, then, you might say, what about Mary in this case at hand? Wasn’t she neglecting to love and serve her sister Martha, by not helping her with the meal preparations? Could not her two hands have lightened the load and quickened the whole process? Perhaps, and probably so.
And yet, Jesus responds quite differently to Martha’s complaint and request. It’s actually rather frustrating, I suspect, especially to those who are often the ones slaving away behind the scenes, before, during, and after the party, while others are taking their ease and enjoying themselves. Truth be told, our Lord is not very practical or realistic in what He says to Martha; leastwise not by any worldly human standard of common sense. But don’t take that the wrong way:
Our Lord Jesus is not rude, nor mean, nor inconsiderate. He certainly does care about Martha, and He speaks to her with gentle compassion. It is in His love for her that He corrects her mistaken perspective and her wrong way of thinking. He calls her to repent of her sin, and He catechizes her in the One Thing truly needful, in the Good Portion that will not be taken away.
He does not enter into any arbitration of whatever sibling rivalry or suspicion there may have been going on between Mary and Martha. If you are a parent or a sibling, you can easily imagine that being a factor at work. These sisters certainly had different personalities, and it is likely that Martha was the older of the two. Since their parents are not mentioned, perhaps it had fallen to Martha to bear the load of responsibility for her sister and their household. It may be that their brother Lazarus had already taken ill or was otherwise unable to care for them.
All sorts of possibilities, but, whatever the particulars of the situation, Jesus does not address any of that. He seems to ignore altogether the logistical necessities, and He pays no attention to family politics. Instead, He points Martha to Mary’s good example, and, in doing so, He points both of them, and you, as well, to Himself, to His Word, and to His Divine Service.
It is noteworthy and significant that Mary says nothing at all; and she does nothing, either, except to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him. In this, she honors Him and worship Him most devoutly.
If Martha has far-and-away outdone Simon the Pharisee in her gracious hospitality for the Lord Jesus, her sister Mary has outdone even that blessed sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Simon’s home. It is interesting to note that this same Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister, will likewise anoint the Lord’s feet and dry them with her hair, when, again, her sister Martha serves a supper for Him on the cusp of His Passion. But here, today, Mary is sitting at His feet, not to serve Him with any work of hers, but to love Him above all things by listening to His Word.
Such listening to the Word of Christ is still the first and foremost activity of faithful Christian worship in Spirit and in Truth. To be sure, you are to be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer only; but all of your obedience and faithful doing begin with, and depend upon, your hearing of His Word; even as your hearing itself depends upon the preaching of Christ Jesus. It is for such preaching that He comes, and you worship Him by listening to Him.
Your pastors preach and teach the Word and administer the Sacraments, as their vocation and service, just as you perform the duties of your own callings and stations in life. All of this is good and right and as it should be: it is the fruit of faith and the work of love, in the place where God Himself has positioned each of us. But the foremost worship of the Lord your God is not in your serving, but in your receiving of His Service: in your listening and learning, and in your eating and drinking of what He gives to you here within His House. All of your serving, and your pastors’ serving, too, depends upon the Lord’s speaking and giving: None of us have anything to say or do, expect what He has spoken by His grace. None of us have anything to offer, except what He provides and we receive from Him, according to His mercy.
So, first things first, Mary has it right.
Again, it’s not a matter of neglecting duties and responsibilities. There is work to be done, and someone has to prepare the meal, serve it, and clean up afterwards. Many hands do make for light work, and you should not leave your neighbor to do everything for you. But all of this is for nothing, apart from the Word and work of Christ Jesus for you.
It is like the Feeding of the Five Thousand, as you might consider, when those great crowds of people listened to the Lord Jesus as He preached and taught them throughout the day. And then, as evening approached, and the disciples were worried and anxious about how all those people were going to eat, because there was no food but a few loaves and fishes — well, you know that Jesus fed them all with more than enough. Before that, He Himself had feasted on the Word of God His Father, throughout His forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following His Holy Baptism; there He fasted with His Body and waited on His Father to provide all that He needed.
So, too, at that first Emmaus, Jesus “fed” the two disciples with His Word along the way; and then, when they invited Him to be their guest, He became their Host in His Breaking of the Bread. For He is the One who feeds both soul and body by His grace. Therefore, seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness — by listening to Him, by hearing His Word and the preaching of it, and by eating and drinking the Meal He serves you — and all things shall be added unto you in Him.
I don’t mean that you should be lazy, nor that you should quit your job and leave your family in order to spend all your time at church. Do the work that God has given you to do, and serve the neighbors He has placed around you and before you on your path of life. But set your ears, your heart and mind upon His Word, which is the One Thing on which everything else depends. Find your peace and Sabbath rest in Him, and so find life and health and strength for now and forever. Then you’ll also serve Him with the worship of your body and your soul, with your confession of His Name, and with your prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. And in Him, you’ll learn to love your neighbor as yourself, and to serve your neighbor, as the Lord Jesus serves you with His Gospel.
Not by your own reason or strength: None of this is, not even your listening and hearing. Jesus comes to you and enters in. He makes His visitation, and He preaches. He sends His messengers before His face. His Word opens your ears, your mind and heart, and finally your mouth, as well.
It was the same for Mary, as it was also for Abraham and Sarah. Each of them was just as flawed, distracted, worried, and troubled as you are, and as Martha was. Incredulous, fatigued, cynical, or jaded. Sarah laughed in disbelief at the Word and promise of the Lord; yet, His Word was fulfilled for her nonetheless. Her skepticism became faith, and her sarcastic snort became the laughter of genuine joy and gladness in her son.
Abraham also served the Lord with hospitality, as Martha does in her day. He did so as one who had found favor in the Lord by faith in His Word; for Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. His faith depended on God’s faithfulness. He rested in God’s Word and promise. And despite father Abraham’s doubts and fears and sins and failings, he was sustained and saved by the Lord his God. So, too, with Mary of Bethany, and with her sister Martha, also.
The Word and promise of Christ the Lord are also here spoken to you. These are not empty and meaningless chatter, nor simply a lesson in history and morality. By this Ministry of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit lays Christ upon your heart, and you are reconciled to God the Father through this beloved Son. His Word calls you to repentance, and brings you to faith and life in Christ Jesus, by and with His forgiveness of all your sins.
He is gentle in His rebuke, and He is generous in His Divine Service. For He does care deeply about you, and for you, and His whole purpose in coming to you, here and now, is not to put you to work for Him, but to give you peace with God and perfect rest from all your heavy burdens.
The One Thing that you need is here provided for you, freely, by the grace of God, in this Word of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Here is your hope of Glory, which shall not disappoint you: For Christ is actively present in His Word, and He thereby gives Himself to you, with all His gifts and benefits. You honor Him and worship Him by hearing and receiving Him, who is your gracious Host; and, not only your Host, but He is the Butler and the Cook, the Waiter, and the Meal.
Already He has cleaned up after you, and He has prepared a permanent place for you at His Table in His House, in the City of God forever and ever. Recline here at His feet, and set your heart and mind at ease in Him who serves you. Feast upon this Main Course, this Good Portion, this Meat and Drink of Christ, the Lord. It will not be taken away from you; nor shall you ever perish.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.: An Appreciation
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